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Nationwide Division One, 17/10/00
By Ian Grant

I hate Gillingham. In an admiring sort of way.

They're a pain in the arse, obviously. We haven't beaten them since the invention of the combustion engine and, on last night's evidence, we'll have seen a few more inventions come and go before we beat them again. They know how to make themselves unpopular, that's for sure.

Perhaps they've burst our bubble at an appropriate moment, though. For all the Watford fans who've already said premature farewells to the Nationwide, this was a painful reminder of many things. That opponents will come to the Vic with no intention of doing anything but defending, that they'll occasionally succeed, that they'll celebrate a nil-nil draw like it's a famous cup triumph. That victory doesn't necessarily go to the best team.

You can't blame Gillingham, frankly. The sides that have come to visit and play "proper" football have generally gone away on the wrong end of three or four goals. You can open the game up for the enjoyment of Watford fans or you can close it down for the benefit of your own fans...and there was surely never any doubt which option Andy Hessenthaler would pick, was there? He's a practical bloke, Hessy.

We still murdered them, of course. We spent most of the evening holding our heads in our hands as chance after chance missed by inches. When we weren't doing that, we were loudly praying that we'd get the breakthrough eventually - bellowing encouragement, bellowing frustration, just bellowing. Only when that desperation began to prevent us from playing our passing football did Gillingham's precious point look even vaguely safe.

So, the whole thing was as one-sided as it gets. It represented our most convincing attempt at breaking down a massed defence for many a year - compare and contrast with the game against Bury a couple of seasons ago - and, really, it only lacked a goal. For that lack, we can thank the woodwork, Vince Bartram, and the Gillingham rearguard (which was all eleven of them). Quite honestly, we didn't play that much better against QPR on Saturday.

Pretty obviously, we needed an early goal to disrupt our opponents' game plan. Equally obviously, we didn't get it. We were a little sluggish at the start, in truth, as if the sheer energy of the Gillingham midfield had taken us by surprise - Hessenthaler may be thirty-five but he retains a level of fitness that puts every other footballer to shame. Some Gills fans on the train to Brighton claimed that he's currently using his spare time to build his own house...which says it all, in many ways. Whatever, he's still a wonderful, singular player.

Gillingham had three shots in the first twenty minutes. Not usually a remarkable statistic...but you have to bear in mind that they managed just one in the rest of the game. Saunders, Shaw and Smith all failed to hit the target with speculative efforts from outside the area. That was as positive as they got, though - in ninety minutes, they created no notable chances, had no on-target goal attempts, and didn't even get as far as winning a corner.

Apart from a brief flurry of activity after eight minutes, we took time to get the measure of the game. That flurry was nearly decisive, however. It began with a neat interchange on the edge of the penalty area, which resulted in Gifton Noel-Williams' shot getting a deflection and dipping over the bar. From Paul Robinson's corner, Darren Ward rose at the far post, as if to contend that Neil Cox doesn't have a monopoly on majestic headers, and we hit the crossbar for the first time. The next corner was less successful...but it still came out to Micah Hyde, whose arrowing shot from twenty yards was saved with relative ease by Bartram.

For some time, we lacked inspiration. Although Steve Palmer did an admirable job of digging the ball out of the midfield mess and spreading it to the flanks, the crosses came in from too deep...and, whatever you think of Barry Ashby, he's quite big and tall enough to know what to do in that situation. Throughout the night, the Gillingham defence was so deep that there was little chance of getting behind them. Lacking Nordin Wooter's natural width, it became a question of whether we could play our way through.

Gradually, we began to give the impression that we might do just that. We grew as the half went on. Allan Nielsen burst from midfield, slid a pass into Heidar Helguson, Noel-Williams received the lay-off and shot across goal. Helguson managed to retrieve Robinson's over-hit cross and Nielsen smacked a volley over. After a corner had been cleared, Ward charged back to gain possession and rampaged back towards goal - having exchanged passes with Helguson, he found himself with only Bartram to beat but couldn't find a finish to match his wonderfully ambitious approach work. Nevertheless - and bearing in mind what's to come from Mr Ward before the end of the half - it's marvellous to see a Watford central defender who looks so comfortable with the ball at his feet in any area of the pitch.

By half-time, we'd done enough to have buried Gillingham under a big pile of goals. Though their defending was stubborn and obstinate throughout, contesting everything with the determination that their manager would expect, it wasn't enough to prevent us from coming so close to taking the lead.

First, Nielsen darted into the area from the right and chipped a perfect cross to the far post. Tommy Smith's head met it and guided it into the top corner. As we jumped up to celebrate, Bartram's hand intervened and clawed the ball away from its seemingly inevitable destination. A really breathtaking, and thoroughly frustrating, save.

Three minutes later, Darren Ward was at it again. A corner came out to him and we watched in astonishment as, from twenty yards out, he controlled and volleyed in one elegant movement. It beat Bartram and crashed against the bar, bouncing out to safety. The half ended with its best chance, Cox's long ball down the right releasing Helguson for a run on goal - you'd back him to score in that situation but his attempt at chipping the ball over the advancing keeper was too heavy and drifted over the bar.

Spirits were still high during the break. We've become used to the sight of Watford forwards (and assorted helpers) raining shots at the opposition it was difficult to adjust to the idea that none of them had actually gone in. We were playing in a football match - a real, proper and important football match, at that - and we weren't leading. What's all that about, then? Best to ignore the facts and get on with it regardless.

Really, Gillingham were comically defensive in the second half. That is, they defended well - the number of unchallenged chances was minimal - but to a ludicrous extent. Apart from a spell before the belated introduction of Nordin Wooter, when they threatened to catch us on the break and we were reliant on a vital tackle from Robinson to stop Thomson, they barely seemed inclined to cross the halfway line. In forty-five minutes of football, they managed just one shot. It was struck by Onoura from fully thirty-five yards and was a similar distance away from disturbing Alec Chamberlain's peaceful evening.

So it was only about one thing - whether we could score. In the end, obviously, we couldn't...but it certainly wasn't for the want of trying. If the intensity of Gillingham's defensive efforts made it difficult to find a way through and we were at times left scratching our heads, it's hard to imagine that we could've given it a better shot.

The abiding memory of this game will be of standing and hoping, of watching the ball drift across goal and agonisingly wide. Goalless draws have rarely been so exhilarating...or so completely frustrating.

If you're wondering, our finishing didn't let us down. As already noted, Gillingham made it so difficult and the lack of clear-cut chances has much to do with the fact that there always seemed to be a blue shirt in the way. We did what we could, we didn't have any luck at all. Let's take the first opportunity as an example. As Robinson's cross was headed out to Hyde, he seemed set to score...but the ball just wouldn't drop for him and, when he finally took aim, there were bodies all around. Even then, Bartram could only parry the shot, and Helguson's attempt at squeezing the ball in from a tight angle ended up in the side netting.

You couldn't fault us. Noel-Williams, full of ideas, headed Robinson's cross wide, inevitably under challenge. Six minutes later, he flicked Hyde's delightfully dinked cross at the near post...and it floated...and it floated...and it floated...and it pretty much caressed the post on its way past the goal. Again, that's a perfect example - Gifton's header was brilliant and inventive, it would've been a marvellous goal. In the stands, we could barely contain our pent-up celebrations.

For Gills fans, this must have been interminable. Watching the yellow shirts flooding the Rookery end, seeing the ball flying around the goal. Hyde mis-hit a volley at Bartram from Cox's corner, then smashed a drive across goal from twenty-two yards.

In the end, tiredness and disappointment got the better of us. After twenty minutes, we began to run out of ideas. The runs at the Gillingham defence became more desperate. We saw Smith and others trying to take on all eleven opponents on the way to goal - it was impossible not to feel for them, the players that had done so much and probably couldn't believe the still goalless scoreline. As we tried to come up with another strategy, the visitors briefly showed an inclination towards attack and we contemplated the possibility of a completely undeserved defeat. Ultimately, though, they were too protective of their point to commit enough players forward to trouble our excellent defence.

Nordin Wooter waited on the touchline while the ball stayed in play for the best part of ten minutes. When he finally came on, it became clear that he'd been given a bewildering free role when it seemed that we were crying out for greater width. Still, he popped up on the left and flashed a shot across goal - Bartram dived desperately, those suppressed celebrations lifted us to our feet again, the ball whistled wide.

Gillingham gave up any pretence of being involved in a football match, wasting time and retreating still deeper. Helguson curled a speculative shot over, Cox tried his luck from distance and then remembered that luck had deserted us. The referee waited for a slow motion Bartram to coooolllleeeeccctttt tttthhhheee bbbbbaaallllllll, wwwwwwwwwwwaaaaaalllllllkkkkkk aaaaaaabbbbbbooooouuuuutttttt, ppppplllllaaaaacccccccceeee iiiiiiiitttttttt, ttttttttiiiiiieeeeeee hhhhhhhiiiiisssss llllllllllaaaaaaaaaaaccccccccceeeeeeeeesssssssss, rrrrrrrrruuuuunnnnn uuuuuuppppp and finally kick the bloody thing, then blew his whistle. The Gillingham fans went beserk, we congratulated our team on a performance that's insulted by the result.

Where do we go from here? Nowhere, I hope. Hell, I've seen enough dreadful nil-nil draws in my time to know that this wasn't one of them. There's nothing that needs fixing, nothing to worry about. The season's not finished just because we've failed to beat Gillingham at home, any more than we were promoted when we won at Blackburn. We've got players in form, players who can score goals, players who did more than enough to have scored several last night.

As he left the pitch, Andy Hessenthaler was subjected to one last chorus of "short greedy bastard". He doesn't deserve it, either as a person or a player, but that's not the point.

One day, he'll come to the Vic and get the reception that his contribution to the club merits. That'll only happen when he's been rubbish, when he hasn't been bashing our players about for ninety minutes, when he hasn't been a thorn in our side, when his team has lost. He's that kind of player.

Like I say, one day....